I hope everyone had a great Wednesday! I apologize for missing Women in History Crush Wednesday last week and being late this week – it’s the end of the grading period at school, which means tests and quizzes in every class, every day. I’m not even sure at this point how we’ve learned enough material in between tests to have our absorption accurately assessed, yet the testing continues. But I digress. This week’s belated WCW is one of the most famous anthropologists in the world, Margaret Mead.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 16th, 1901, Mead was the embodiment of the Progressive Era in which she was raised. Mead began journaling about human behavior and characteristics at the age of six as she helped her mother and grandmother raise her four siblings. Due to her parents’ constant relocation for jobs as professors and social reformers, Mead’s education prior to college was varied and intermittent. She spent several years in both grade and high school, with the gap years spent under the home instruction of her grandmother. Besides basic curriculum, Mead was taught skills like carving, music, and arts while home schooled. Her grandmother’s main focus in teaching Mead was to instill in her a well-rounded and inquisitive nature and a routine of observing the behaviors of people, ideologies that drove her through her life. Mead started her college education at her father’s alma mater, DePauw University, but after a year transferred to Barnard College, where she graduated with a degree in psychology. By 1929, she had earned her doctorate from Columbia University, where she studied with renowned anthropologist Franz Boas.
Following graduation, Mead set off on her first “salvage anthropology” research mission to American Samoa. While anthropology is the broad study of human culture, salvage anthropology is the urgent documenting of the vanishing cultures. On her first trip in Samoa, Mead focused on the raising of adolescent girls, and published her findings in the Coming of Age in Samoa. In this work, she suggested that the experiences of developmental stages are strongly influenced by the cultural norms, demands, and expectations. Her second field study sent her to the Manus Islands in New Guinea, this time with a focus on the interaction between childhood play and the influence of adult society. Her studies from this trip were groundbreaking, as she was the first to analyze human development in a cross-cultural perspective in her book Growing Up in New Guinea. For the next forty six years, Mead studied gender, age, and societal relations and how they’re interconnected in numerous countries around the world, publishing hundreds of reports and over twenty novels about what she learned.
During World War II, research outings in the South Pacific, including Mead’s, were put on hold. During this break, Mead and college research partner Ruth Benedict founded the Institute for Intercultural Studies to study rapidly changing contemporary cultures. Mead was able to revisit the Manus Islands at the conclusion of the war to study the impact of the growing global interactions after war exposure, publishing her research from this trip in New Lives for Old.
In the mid-1960’s, Mead retired from field work. She had worked through the ranks to become one of the lead curators at the American Museum of Natural History, had her work on display at the museum, and was in high demand as a lecturer. Mead believed that patterns of bigotry and exploitation were learned traits, and so spoke to large crowds about toleration, change, and the modification of traditional culture, encouraging action and awareness. Some of her most distinguished causes included education, ecology, gender equality, nuclear weaponry, and student-based protest.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”
Because of her profound ideas, especially those about cultural conditioning, Mead was subject to opposition. Many of her peers called her “scandalous” and a state governor even went so far as calling her a “dirty old lady” for her cultural suggestions. Nonetheless, Mead was awarded twenty eight honorary doctorates during her career, taught at seven highly prestigious universities, and helped found anthropology departments at NYU and Fordham University. Additionally, she served as the president for organizations including the American Anthropological Association, Royal Anthropological Institute of Film, Scientists Institute for Public Information, Society for Applied Anthropology, and the American Association for Advancement of Science.
Mead’s personal life wasn’t quite as put together as her academic life. She married and divorced three times; first to Luther Cressman for five years, then to Reo Fortune for about seven years, and finally to Gregory Bateson for fourteen years. With the latter, Mead had a daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, in 1939. Mary Catherine has followed in her mother’s footsteps, as she is now an accomplished author and Visiting Scholar at Boston University for cultural anthropology. After battling cancer for a year, Mead died on November 15th, 1978 in New York City.
One of the most profound effects Mead made in the realm of human understanding was that she proved that no matter the complexity or technological advancement of a civilization, lessons can be taught and learned from one another. She approached every group she studied with respect, and preached the importance of respect and acceptance. For this reason, she was christened the “Mother of the World” by Time magazine in 1969. Mead’s lessons are a massive inspiration as our global society becomes more connected, as they teach us that understanding and unified work can create peace between people.
To learn more about Margaret Mead’s enthralling life and research, check out her books and autobiography, along with these bio., Webster, Institute for Intercultural Studies, and Library of Congress articles.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Women in History Crush Wednesdays!